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The Island - Victoria Hislop

Review by Lizzie Guilfoyle

THE ISLAND of Spinalonga lies off the north coast of Crete and between 1903 and 1957, was Greece’s main leper colony. That much is fact. The remainder of Victoria Hislop’s debut novel, entitled simply The Island, is fiction.

It’s the story of Eleni, her husband Georgiou and her daughters Anna and Maria – the family that Sofia, who now lives in England, never speaks of. However, when her daughter Alexis decides to visit Crete, Sofia gives her a letter to take to her old friend Fotini, promising that through her, Alexis will learn about the past.

What Alexis hasn’t bargained for is the part Spinalonga had to play in it.

As first novels go, The Island is pretty good. It’s style is simple and therefore easy to read but more importantly, it brings both Crete and Spinalonga to life. Moreover, Hislop has obviously researched her subject well.

Her knowledge of island life, not only during good times but also under the German occupation of World War II, is as extensive as her knowledge of leprosy, a disease that even today, is a major health problem in developing countries.

But for the occupants of Spinalonga, leprosy was a scourge, something to be ashamed of and inevitably, a death sentence. To her immense credit, Hislop has handled a sensitive subject with real compassion and to such a degree that there were times when I found myself close to tears.

And she hasn’t balked at describing some of the less seemly aspects of disease or indeed, the bigoted attitude of the healthy towards those less fortunate than themselves. In fact, where leprosy is concerned, it’s something of an eye-opener and goes a long way in dispelling myths rooted in Biblical times.

With leprosy a key factor, you could be forgiven for thinking that The Island is all doom and gloom. But it’s not – far from it, in fact. It’s a story about people as real as you or I and as such, exposes the myriad facets of human nature, not least of all optimism in the face of adversity.

As a novel, The Island has come in for a fair amount of criticism, much of it undeserved. After all, as well as the above it has the requisite beginning, middle and end, besides which, it is a page-turner. And when all said and done, isn’t that what most of us want from a book at some time or another in our busy lives.

My advice then – don’t dismiss it as just a ‘summer read’ because it is so much more than that. You’ll be surprised…..